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article imageCrew Dragon to join an elite group of spacecraft carrying humans

By Karen Graham     May 26, 2020 in Technology
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule - scheduled to launch two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on May 27, will — if all goes well — become just the ninth space vehicle to carry humans into space in almost six decades of space flight.
Crew Dragon's mission to the International Space Station will put the capsule right up there with an elite group of spacecraft that have carried hundreds of people into space - and it was all accomplished with just eight vehicles. Crew Dragon will be the ninth to carry passengers into space.
Four crewed vehicles to date have been American spacecraft, a point NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine emphasized in remarks made during a May 1 news conference about the upcoming SpaceX launch, called Demo-2.
"We think about Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and then space shuttle: Those are really the four times in history where we have put humans on brand new spacecraft, and now we're doing it for the fifth time," Bridenstine said, noting that it will be the ninth global flight of a new crewed spacecraft. "It's been a long time since we put humans on a brand new spacecraft, but that's what this is. And it is truly a test flight, to be very clear."
So who is in this elite group of spacecraft that Crew Dragon will be joining? Let's take a quick journey through the company Crew Dragon will join.
Vostok spaecraft
Vostok spaecraft
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Vostok (USSR, 1961)
Vostok 1launched from the Tyuratam (Baikonur Cosmodrome), U.S.S.R on April 12, 1961. This was the first spacecraft to carry a human, Yuri A. Gagarin, into space. There was so much concern over how a human would experience weightlessness that the manual controls on the spacecraft were locked prior to launch and the entire flight was under the control of ground personnel.
Gagarin made just over one full orbit of Earth, perched atop a belt of life-support gas tanks, and a pyramidical instrument module that was jettisoned before the cabin reentered Earth's atmosphere. Gagarin could view the Earth by looking through a window at his feet.
Vostok translates as "East;" Gagarin's capsule went by the call sign Swallow, according to NASA. Six Vostok capsules in all carried cosmonauts to orbit between 1961 and 1963. The final flight of the capsule on June 16, 1963, carried Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space. She spent almost three days in space and orbited Earth 48 times in her space capsule, Vostok 6.
Friendship 7 at the National Air and Space Museum  2009
Friendship 7 at the National Air and Space Museum, 2009
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Mercury (the US, 1961)
Project Mercury was born during the Cold War Space Race, a series of competitive technology demonstrations between the United States and the Soviet Union, aiming to show superiority in spaceflight. In all, there were six crewed flights in the Mercury program.
And while the Soviet Union beat us into orbit with Gagarin's flight; three weeks later, the U.S. launched astronaut Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight aboard the Freedom 7 capsule. A real crewed Mercury mission didn't reach orbit until John Glenn's flight in February 1962 aboard the Friendship 7 capsule.
Today the Mercury program is commemorated as the first American human space program. While it did not win the race against the Soviet Union, it gave back national prestige and was a scientifically successful precursor of later programs such as Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab.
One little bit of trivia to go with the Mercury program - Mercury capsules had individual names beyond the series itself; others included Liberty Bell 7, Sigma 7, and Aurora 7. The final crewed Mercury capsule flew in 1963.
This model depicts the Voskhod 2 Capsule in its deployed state.
This model depicts the Voskhod 2 Capsule in its deployed state.
Fac-tory-o (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Voskhod (USSR, 1964)
The Voskhod capsule resembled the Vostok, but was designed to carry more than one crew member and later, allow for a spacewalk. To accomplish this, the USSR needed to squeeze several crewmembers into the small capsule. To accomplish that, spacecraft engineers ditched the ejection seat and replaced it with stable couches and a landing system, according to NASA.
Believe it or not, but for the first crewed mission, three people were squeezed into the capsule, a pilot, a medical doctor, and a spacecraft engineer - and none of them wore a spacesuit.
In 1965, as part of the final flight of Voskhod 2, two crew members were sent aloft in pressure suits on a 26-hour flight. One of those cosmonauts, Alexei Leonov, exited the inflatable airlock and spent about 12 minutes in space, becoming the first human to walk in space.
This photograph of the Gemini 7 spacecraft was taken from Gemini 6 during rendezvous and station kee...
This photograph of the Gemini 7 spacecraft was taken from Gemini 6 during rendezvous and station keeping maneuvers at an altitude of approximately 160 miles above the Earth. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 launched on December 15, 1965 and December 4, 1965, respectively.
NASA
Gemini (the US, 1965)
The Gemini capsule was an upgrade of the Mercury capsule and allowed for two crew members instead of just one. Its primary mission was to teach engineers how to dock spacecraft in orbit, which NASA believed would be necessary to land humans on the moon.
Ten Gemini crews and sixteen individual astronauts flew low Earth orbit (LEO) missions during 1965 and 1966. All Gemini flights were launched from Launch Complex 19 (LC-19) at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. The astronaut corps that supported Project Gemini included the "Mercury Seven", "The New Nine", and the 1963 astronaut class.
The Gemini program was a vital link to the Apollo program, first conceived in early 1960 - NASA's plan to land a man on the moon. And each space flight got a little longer as crews learned to prepare for a lunar mission. By the time Gemini 7 came around, missions were stretching as long as 11 days to help scientists understand the consequences of lengthier spaceflights.
The final mission, Gemini 12 - launched in November 1966 and included three separate spacewalks. It also included a successful docking maneuver with an uncrewed spacecraft.
The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft is seen docked to the International Space Station. The vehicle launched J...
The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft is seen docked to the International Space Station. The vehicle launched July 7, 2016 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
NASA
Soyuz (USSR/Russia, 1967)
The first crewed launch of a Soyuz capsule was way back in 1967, and a version is still flying today. Soyuz means "union," and the USSR and Russia have developed a total of 10 different crewed Soyuz models over the decades. One thing has remained the same in all the variations of the Soyuz - they all adhere to a three-part-recipe.
The Soyuz consists of a spheroid orbital module, which provides accommodation for the crew during their mission; a small aerodynamic reentry module, which returns the crew to Earth; and a cylindrical service module with solar panels attached, which contains the instruments and engines.
The Soyuz spacecraft has been a real workhorse and has made nearly 150 crewed flights since the vehicle design was introduced. The vehicle also docked with an Apollo command module in 1975 to mark the end of the Cold War space race. And since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. has become dependent on Soyuz as a taxi service to the ISS.
Bryan Erb lent that expertise to the development of a heat shield for the Apollo spacecraft’s comm...
Bryan Erb lent that expertise to the development of a heat shield for the Apollo spacecraft’s command module, which protected the astronauts from extreme heat as they travelled through the Earth’s atmosphere on their return home.
NASA
Apollo/Lunar Module (the US, 1968)
The one big difference in the Apollo crew module as compared to its predecessors was that it became more squatter, rather than cylindrical. It was designed to serve only as a transport vehicle, carrying three astronauts during launch, Earth orbit, lunar orbit, and landing.
Apollo 1's first crew launch was supposed to be the start of the program in 1967, however, during a preflight test, a flash fire in the command module killed the mission's three crewmembers. The command module successfully flew with humans on board in 1968 on a mission called Apollo 7.
Thirty-two astronauts were assigned to fly missions in the Apollo program. Twenty-four of these left Earth's orbit and flew around the Moon between December 1968 and December 1972 - and half of them actually walked on the lunar surface. The last Apollo mission - Apollo 17 - occurred in December 1972, making it Apollo's last crewed Moon landing.
Space shuttle Discovery
Space shuttle Discovery
NASA
Space Shuttle (the US, 1981)
With the end of the Apollo program in 1972, NASA would not launch another crewed vehicle until the early 1980s. This was the Space Shuttle. A total of five shuttles were built that gave the agency 135 crewed missions between 1981 and 2011. Just so you know, but the proper name for the space shuttle was the "Space Transportation System."
The Space Shuttle was the first operational orbital spacecraft designed for reuse. Each Space Shuttle orbiter was designed for a projected lifespan of 100 launches or ten years of operational life, although this was later extended. At launch, it consisted of the orbiter, which contained the crew and payload, the external tank (ET), and the two solid rocket boosters (SRBs).
Of the five shuttles made, two were destroyed in horrible accidents. First, in January 1986, Challenger suffered an anomaly during launch; then, in February 2003, Columbia fell to pieces during reentry. In both cases, all seven astronauts were killed.
China's Shenzhou vehicle line is one other space vehicle that has carried a human into space. The first crewed Shenzhou to fly launched in 2003 and made China the third country with the capability to launch humans to orbit. That flight carried one taikonaut, the Chinese term for an astronaut, who orbited for nearly a day.
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